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Free Men, a film about Muslim members of the French Resistance in World War II, evokes recent surveillance activity by the New York Police Department

Jacob Silverman
March 21, 2012
Younes (Tahar Rahim) in Free Men.(Film Movement)
Younes (Tahar Rahim) in Free Men.(Film Movement)

With recent revelations that the New York Police Department engaged in wide-ranging ethnic profiling of Muslim communities in New York—and that they at times mistook Middle Eastern Jews for Muslims—it’s difficult to consider it anything but a political statement that the city’s 16th Sephardic Film Festival opened last week with a wartime tale of Muslim-Jewish cooperation. Based on real events, Free Men, the most recent film from the Moroccan-French director Ismaël Ferroukhi, tells the story of Younes, an Algerian immigrant in 1942 Paris. After he’s arrested by French police for possessing black-market goods, Younes agrees to inform on a local mosque, whose director, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale, sage-like in elegant white robes), is suspected of providing forged identification papers to North African Jews.

Younes is played by Tahar Rahim, a 29-year-old French actor known for his breakout role in A Prophet, the celebrated 2009 film about a young Arab sentenced to prison and his subsequent rise through the criminal underworld. Rahim plays Younes as streetwise but a touch naïve. He’s a tough negotiator when trying to sell black-market cigarettes but doesn’t know what to make of a beautiful North African drum that someone offers him in exchange. He walks down occupied-Paris streets with his shoulders hunched, casting furtive looks for approaching police or Gestapo officers, but he also has a jumpiness in his step that could draw undesired attention.

Younes is the kind of opportunistic, though certainly not evil, operator who thrives in wartime. We’re made to believe that he’s a successful black-marketeer whose only goal is to send money back home to his family so that he can eventually return. When he finds out that his cousin Ali has taken up with the resistance, Younes is more baffled than bothered.

“Why fight?” Younes asks. “It’s not our war.”

Ali responds that fighting for French freedom will help them in their later fight for Algerian freedom. What begins as utilitarian argument, however, eventually becomes something more expansive and compassionate, contending with notions of mutual responsibility, tribalism and assimilation, and religious freedom.

After being discovered as a spy, Younes is cast off—a bit improbably—by his police handlers. His newly tenuous position, combined with the surprising revelation that his friend Salim Halali, an extraordinary singer (Mahmud Shalaby), is Jewish, pushes Younes into the arms of the resistance. But it is a halting transition, one made permanent only when Younes finds himself charged with the care of two Jewish children and when his love interest reveals herself as a resistance member. For Younes, sentiment trumps principle.

Rahim is a very fine actor, whose dark eyes communicate the lonely wariness of a man apart, but his Younes also lacks much depth and is a bit too prone to the shifting tides around him. The film is buoyed by a stellar supporting cast, including Lonsdale’s Ben Ghabrit, who plays a dangerous game by presenting himself as a collaborator to Germans while also being a clandestine supporter of Jews. He feels he has little choice but to prostrate himself to the authorities.

“What shall I do?” Ben Ghabrit asks when another mosque official questions his behavior. “Let the Germans take my mosque?”

In fact, it is the mosque itself that becomes the axis on which the film tilts. Decorated in gorgeous Andalusian tiles, its courtyard awash in sunshine, the mosque provides sanctuary for resistance members, who live secretly in the basement, and a pair of Jewish children whose parents are arrested by the Gestapo. Amid the dislocations of occupation, the mosque offers a patina of normalcy for the film’s North African Muslims, many of whom want little more than to avoid the menacing eye of Gestapo officers, who occasionally wander through as if visiting a zoo.

But the mosque in Free Men is not an inviolable space. The same may be said of mosques in New York and many other places in the northeastern United States, sanctums once secured by faith in the First Amendment. Members there will now be wary of informers—latter-day Youneses in their midst—and the patronizing assurances of city officials. While one should not conflate the NYPD and Nazi or Vichy authorities, Ferroukhi’s film reminds us that surveillance is never passive or limited in scope. It is by nature capricious, spilling into communities and areas of life to which it has no legal or moral right.

Younes experiences this reality when, strolling down a street, he stumbles upon a roundup of Jews. A Gestapo officer corners him and looks at his papers skeptically, before forcing Younes to drop his pants to prove he’s not circumcised. This humiliation doesn’t satisfy the officer, who nearly throws Younes onto a transport before another officer confirms the authenticity of his papers. The incident is one of several close calls throughout the film, which doesn’t build toward a climax so much as it maintains a slow boil of suspicion, paranoia, and recrimination. In this cauldron, ethnic and religious barriers break down; conceptions of guilt and innocence become similarly occluded.

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist”—Martin Niemöller’s famous quote about mutual responsibility and speaking out for minority rights has been deployed so many times and in so many contexts that it has nearly been denatured of meaning. In reality, while Niemöller’s sentiment is laudable, his statement is misleading. A corrupted authority rarely targets a single group in isolation; instead, it tends to range widely and aggressively, viewing many populations through the same prejudicial lens. And so, when the Associated Press reported on NYPD spying, it also found that Hindus, Sikhs, and Persian Jews were under observation, their movements and relationships filed in department dossiers. Similarly, it should not be surprising that the New York Times discovered that the NYPD has followed and confronted Occupy Wall Street activists. One 32-year-old man, an American citizen born in Pakistan, was arrested at an Occupy protest only to be asked if he knew anyone in al-Qaida.

Broad-spectrum surveillance and a wartime footing now characterize the NYPD, which newspapers have taken to referring to as a domestic intelligence organization. The federal government’s tendency to infantilize the same population it is politically beholden to has trickled down to the city’s police force: “We have to keep this country safe,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently in response to the AP reports. “This is a dangerous place. Make no mistake about it.” In Free Men, too, authorities warn Ben Ghabrit that his cooperation is as beneficial as it is necessary.

One might then view Free Men as a parable about the consequences of surveillance and ethnic profiling taken to its callous extreme—one that, it bears repeating, the NYPD, despite its overreach, is far from realizing. The film is also a heartening tale about the necessity of communal solidarity, but also its limitations. (Jewish students, seeking to bridge political divides, have rallied on behalf of their Muslim peers; Jewish community leaders, on balance, have not.) Younes’ development into a hardened resistance fighter happens mostly off-screen—an epilogue shows him, mustached and confident, arriving in liberated Paris. When he visits the mosque—a place that, although he was never religious, had become dear to him—he seems uncomfortable. The place no longer feels like a shelter; the pall of collaboration, of a sanctuary violated, remains. And when Younes approaches Ben Ghabrit, it is a relief to see the older man still alive, but his wizened face shows a few more lines, the marks of someone forced to make accommodations that should never have been required of him.

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.